Late last week, one of my students told me about the “mojaditos” being arrested in her neighborhood, still wet from the Rio Grande. She is a popular girl, is on the dance team, and earns straight A’s. She is writing an essay for the Princeton University Martin Luther King Essay Contest about Martin Luther King and immigration, and her use of the word “mojaditos,” sounding in my ears, created an ambivalent emotion.
In Spanish, Mojado means wet. Like the dehumanizing use of the English adjective “illegal” as a noun, mojado, when used as a noun, means “wet-back.” Mojado is the word Antonio tells me he hears spit from the angry lips of Border Patrol officers. This is the word I hear a few students use to ridicule their classmates who, fresh from Mexico, speak so little English. Like the words joto and stupid, mojado is one of the many ways that my adolescent students, trapped in an age desperate for acceptance, exclude each other.
Mojadito, however, is a different kind of word. The suffix –ito means little, and often is used with fondness. While living in Monterrey, my darling Mari would affectionately call me her guerito (little white boy). Pobrecito is a fond way of saying, “my poor little baby.” Mojadito, while derived from a racial slur, was being used by my student in a tender way. Her language and even her thoughts were confined by racial segregation, but at least her emotions were freely empathetic.
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Before being thrown into Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King made the hard decision to break a city law in order to be imprisoned. He wrote about that decision in the chapter “A New Day in Birmingham”:
“I intended to be one of the first to set the example of civil disobedience. Ten days after the demonstrations began, between four and five hundred people had gone to jail; some had been released on bail, but about three hundred remained. Now that the job of unifying the Negro community had been accomplished, my time had come. We decided that Good Friday, because of its symbolic significance, would be the day that Ralph Abernathy and I would present our bodies as personal witnesses to this crusade.
“Soon after we announced our intention to lead a demonstration on April 12 and submit to arrest, we received a message so distressing that it threatened to ruin the movement. Late Thursday night, the bondsman who had been furnishing bail for the demonstrators notified us that he would be unable to continue. The city had notified him that his financial assets were insufficient. Obviously, this was another move on the part of the city to hurt our cause.
“It was a serious blow. We had used up all the money we had on hand for cash bonds. There were our people in jail, for whom we had a moral responsibility. Fifty more were to go in with Ralph and me. This would be the largest single group to be arrested to date. Without bail facilities, how could we guarantee their eventual release?
“Good Friday morning, early, I sat in Room 30 of the Gaston Motel discussing this crisis with twenty-four key people. As we talked, a sense of doom began to pervade the room. I looked about me and sat that, for the first time, our most dedicated and devoted leaders were overwhelmed by a feeling of hopelessness. No one knew what to say, for no one knew what to do. Finally someone spoke up and, as he spoke, I could see that he was giving voice to what was on everyone’s mind.
“‘Martin,’ he said, ‘this means you can’t go to jail. We need money. We need a lot of money. We need it now. You are the only one who has the contacts to get it. If you go to jail, we are lost. The battle of Birmingham is lost.’
“I sat there, conscious of twenty-four pairs of eyes. I thought about the people in jail. I thought about the Birmingham Negroes already lining the streets of the city, waiting to see me put into practice what I had so passionately preached. How could my failure now to submit to arrest be explained to the local community? What would be the verdict of the country about a man who had encouraged hundreds of people to make a stunning sacrifice and then excused himself?
“Then my mind began to race in the opposite direction. Suppose I went to jail? What would happen to the three hundred? Where would the money come from to assure their release? What would happen to our campaign? Who would be willing to follow us into jail, not knowing when or whether he would ever walk out once more into the Birmingham sunshine?
“I sat in the midst of the deepest quiet I have ever felt, with two dozen others in the room. There comes a time in the atmosphere of leadership when a man surrounded by loyal friends and allies realizes he has come face to face with himself. I was alone in that crowded room.
“I walked to another room in the back of the suite, and stood in the center of the floor. I think I was standing also at the center of all that my life had brought me to be. I thought of the twenty-four people, waiting in the next room. I thought of the three hundred, waiting in prison. I thought of the Birmingham Negro community, waiting. Then my mind leaped beyond the Gaston Motel, past the city jail, past city lines and state lines, and I thought of twenty million black people who dreamed that someday they might be able to cross the Red Sea of injustice and find their way to the Promised Land of integration and freedom. There was no more room for doubt.
“I pulled off my shirt and pants, got into work clothes and went back to the other room to tell them I had decided to go to jail.
“‘I don’t know what will happen; I don’t know where the money will come from. But I have to make a faith act.’”
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Today I received a news alert with the question, “Who will be the immigration movement’s Martin Luther King?” I really think hundreds of people have asked themselves this exact question in the past two years. I don’t have an answer, but the passage I just quoted highlights, for me, the qualities as well as the quandary. Princeton University is asking a very similar question to middle and high school students right now. They essentially ask the question, “What would Martin Luther King say if he were to attend an immigration rally today?” (
When Dr. King faced himself in an instant of introspection instigated by the loneliness of leadership, he realized that his life led him to the decision he was making. And he realized that he could make no other decision than to trust in God, in his sense of history and morality, and choose to act in faith.
What made this decision so difficult for Dr. King was the fact that no bail could be provided for the three hundred in jail and that unless he stayed out of jail and tried to secure funding, they would likely remain in jail for a significant period of time. This is perfectly applicable to our situation with unjust immigration restrictions because arrested immigrants are not given bail. Not only that, but they aren’t often given jail sentences; they are most often deported.
Undoubtedly, the act of turning oneself in to an ICE agent as an unauthorized immigrant in an act of nonviolent civil disobedience requires a greater courage and a greater conviction than even the greatest generation of Americans—the civil rights activists struggling nonviolently against segregation—faced. Will my thirteen-year-old student, newly empathetic for the mojaditos, find the kind of courage that Dr. King found? Will any of my students? Will their lives lead them to a similarly defining moment where they even have the tools to ask the questions Dr. King did?
While writing this, I see, for the first time, the potential for the level of heroism of my friend, Marlene Flowers, in my students. She was about the same age as my 8th graders when she was first arrested for violating a city bus segregation statute. I met Marlene as an energetic grandmother with a résumé that included fifty-four such arrests. Her powerful presence makes it difficult to imagine that first arrest. Even harder for me is to imagine her before that first arrest, before the idea of nonviolent civil disobedience first germinated in her brain and resonated in her soul. But I now wonder if she looked a little unsure, excitable, and even scared, like so many of my students. Resolving to civilly disobey an unjust law is certainly distinct from changing the way we feel about some other law-breaker, but moving our hearts from mojado to mojadito might mean a heart agape enough to eventually find morality and courage and charity (agapé) enough to bring about a new era of human rights in the United States. Today my hope is that it represents a new day in Brownsville, for at least that one student.